How Do You Teach The Most Hands-On Subject — Science — Without A Lab?

From virtual scavenger hunts at the Field Museum to growing seedlings at home, teachers and students at every grade level get creative.

Science Learning Thumbnail New
Seven-year-old Alex Orsornio, a Chicago Public Schools students, shows off a science project he did at home during the school shutdown. (Courtesy of Cyndi Gonzalez)
Seven-year-old Alex Orsornio, a Chicago Public Schools students, shows off a science project he did at home during the school shutdown. (Courtesy of Cyndi Gonzalez)
Science Learning Thumbnail New
Seven-year-old Alex Orsornio, a Chicago Public Schools students, shows off a science project he did at home during the school shutdown. (Courtesy of Cyndi Gonzalez)

How Do You Teach The Most Hands-On Subject — Science — Without A Lab?

From virtual scavenger hunts at the Field Museum to growing seedlings at home, teachers and students at every grade level get creative.

Marcie Gutierrez’s first and second graders had just planted lima beans and grass seed for a unit about the life cycle of plants when Chicago Public Schools announced it was shifting classes online to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

She wondered how to continue when they wouldn’t be together at John Hay Academy in Austin to watch the seeds grow. Then she thought of a solution.

“Why don’t I send it home with them?” she said.

She prepared little packages of dirt and seeds for students to grow and post photos on their class website. One student jumped right in. Seven-year-old Alex Orsornio is taking photos and documenting his plant’s progress in his journal daily.

“It is growing slow,” he wrote one day. “Mom thinks it’s growing fast.”

A hand drawn plant in a journal
Alex Orsornio records how his plant is growing in his daily journal. Courtesy of Cyndi Gonzalez

As kindergarten through college students across Chicago — and the country — adjust to online classes during the COVID-19 pandemic, one course that can be difficult to teach remotely is science.

Science teachers are getting creative as they take a hands-on subject and teach it from a distance. Experts encourage science teachers to think about how student’s homes could be used as a laboratory and to get students off the computer to learn science concepts.

“There’s lots of stuff that can be done in nature and in the world without any kind of sophisticated equipment, especially for younger children,” said Maria Varelas, a professor of science education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “How can we really use this moment to actually do some things that we wouldn’t be able to do in the classroom?”

Varelas said just noticing birds or insects on a walk around the neighborhood can help students learn about behaviors. It can also reduce inequities caused by the digital divide; students don’t need an internet connection to walk around the block.

Science labs head to Zoom

For older students, it can be tougher to shift science online. Equipment is more expensive, and the topics are much more complex.

Earlier this month, Loyola University Chicago professor Carissa Hipsher walked her environmental chemistry class through a lab on Zoom using materials she sent home with them.

“This wasn’t an activity I had originally planned for today but obviously things had to change a little bit,” Hipsher told her students as she explained how they could measure how porous materials are when filled with water.

Then, she split students into small groups on Zoom to complete the experiment.

Student Hannah Sather tuned in from her home in Seattle, where the time difference means she’s starting classes much earlier than normal. She and a friend drove back to Seattle after Loyola shut down, stopping at her family cabin in South Dakota so she could complete the previous lab for this class before continuing the drive west. She and her lab partner discuss each step over Zoom, and Hipsher periodically jumps in to see if they have questions.

Their next lab will require students to gather a soil sample from their homes, which now means the class will have a wide variety from across the country. Hipsher is choosing to see this as a silver lining during all of this chaos.

“We weren’t going to get that kind of opportunity before,” she said. “So [we’re] kind of making something cool out of it.”

Loyola University Chicago students did their environmental chemistry lab on Zoom.
Loyola University Chicago students did their environmental chemistry lab on Zoom. Kate McGee / WBEZ

From the Field Museum to the kitchen

Other science professors are also finding new ways to continue class.

At UIC, a human evolution class did a virtual scavenger hunt at the Field Museum — where you can take tours of the museum on their website — since students can’t visit in person. One biochemistry class is studying reactions of carbohydrates at home by using carbs that students can find in their kitchens.

And the teaching assistants in another UIC biochemistry class are asking students to take them through an experiment as if they’re in the lab.

“For the students to get the most out of their online lab experience, I believe they need to visualize the details of each experiment in their minds,” said teaching assistant Maryna Salkovski. “If they’re not visualizing themselves performing every detail of the experiment, then their takeaway becomes a lot less than what it could be.”

As the shutdown continues, teachers have started to think about new projects. Gutierrez spent last weekend driving flower kits to her elementary student’s homes for the next unit on plant life, including Alex. He said he misses his friends and teacher, so he enjoys looking at their plants and flowers progress online. Gutierrez said that’s the goal.

“Once I post one video, then like seven others come right away in the next half hour,” Gutierrez said. “I think they’re liking that engagement, so they can see how their classmates are doing.”

For those who don’t have good internet access at home, she hopes they can share what they grew once students can return to school. Right now, that’s tentatively slated for May 1.

Kate McGee covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @McGeeReports.